Skip to main content

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” is a poignant look into the reality of racial inequality in 1960s America. King writes this letter to fellow clergy men and aims to address their concerns regarding the wisdom and timing of the nonviolent direct-action demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama that King and other leaders orchestrated and carried out in 1963. King employs all three types of appeals; however, I find I am particularly moved by pathos and ethos in this work. So much that, I must admit, I was initially confused by my own emotions. Dr. King’s letter evokes in me strong feelings of empathy, indignation, and even pride.

One of my first reactions to this reading was a sense of guilt by the mere virtue of being part of what King describes as the “oppressor race” (par 31). But after allowing myself some time to inventory and analyze my reaction, I came to the realization that I can no more take responsibility for the actions of the white segregationists King describes than I can place the responsibility for crimes perpetrated by African Americans of previous generations on the African Americans that I know. The accurate description of what I felt is not guilt, but rather empathy and Dr. King creates several opportunities for his audience place themselves in his role, as in the following passage: “when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year old daughter why she can’t go to the pubic amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told fun town closed to colored children,” (par 14). As a parent, a heartbreaking scene is etched into my mind. Instantly, I picture my own seven year old child looking up at me, the innocence in his eyes distorted by tears. I imagine sorrow flooding my heart as sadness leaves wet streaks on his round little cheeks and an ache in my chest so intense that I am left physically incapable of speaking. King’s ability to get me to place my son and me into his reality all but guarantees my support of his situation because, to put it simply, is just plain wrong, and that is a powerful tool.

In this reading, there are many examples of things that are wrong. Indignation is an emotion that I find surfacing within myself over and over again as I read, but nowhere is it more apparent than in King’s statement, “Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered,” (par 180). This quote resonates in me as I consider that not only has a whole population of Americans been humiliated, deemed inferior, and denied basic human rights, but they have also, in many cases, been robbed of their means to participate in our political process. The right and duty to vote is sacrosanct in the American system. We are told time and again that our message can be heard through our vote. Impeding that amounts to stealing one’s voice. African Americans endured unimaginable hardships in this land and were powerless to effect change in the system with their vote. I find this to be the height of injustice.

Another example of injustice in this reading is King’s arrest. He writes, “I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and deny citizens their First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest,” (par 19). As King explains how a just law can become unjust through capricious or malicious application, I find myself perplexed by the situation. African American citizens are struggling for the equality America was founded on, and these people are being arrested for improper parading. After exhausting many other avenues, African Americans moved to peaceful protest and even that was stifled. I find myself asking where else were they to turn, how else could they effect change, and where is their justice?

As I read this piece, my feelings of empathy and indignation are strong indeed; yet, they are surpassed by something else, and that is pride. At first glance, it may seem strange to associate pride with a situation so filled with suffering and injustice, but this is precisely why I react this way. Would anyone have blamed Dr. King for being angry with his situation? I doubt it. King made a cognitive choice to remain optimistic, to address those who questioned his motives with reverence. In fact, he defines the parameters for how he will respond to his critics in the opening paragraph of his letter: “I want to try to answer your statements in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms,” (par 1). This statement demonstrates King’s commitment to treating others with respect. Even as he finds a glaring gap in their argument, he maintains this position, “You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But, your statement I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations,” (par 5). I find it inspiring that while Dr. King is refuting the attacks against him by these men, he is gracious. This is a great moral I can apply in my own life. An attack on our motives or ideas need not be answered in anger or hostility. King proves reason and kindness are a far more effective approach.

Dr. King’s letter is masterfully crafted and full of wonderful lessons for all human beings. This piece inspires me to demonstrate empathy to those enduring struggle, to be a catalyst for justice, and to recognize the good in our world. I recall, as I read this piece for the very first time, feeling overwhelmed by the many emotions that filled me. I have learned the immense value of allowing myself time for reflection. This is truly an amazing gift to receive from a letter written to someone else, almost fifty years ago.

Work Cited
King, Martin L Jr. “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” Bates.edu. Bates College, 1 Jan. 2001. Web. 5 Apr. 2012.